Hiring an editor. It always makes me feel like things are progressing. (And believe me, spending many years on the same book makes you really look for indications of forward progress.) But how do you find the right editor?
Here I am, nearly done with my novel (it’s heading to its final proofreading), and I’ve already worked with three editors. Three. THREE!
I did not think it would be that difficult to find an editor who was a good match for my work. I did not foresee how LONG it would take–how many months and years it would take to get what I wanted/needed in the editing department. How many tries until I found someone who got what I was doing AND who could help me attain my goals and maintain my vision.
photo by Amanda Foote, via flckr
After three different experiences, a lot is still a mystery as to how to land the right editor, but I’ve gleaned one take-away: genre really matters. What genre the editor likes to read matters. What genre the editor likes and understands really matters. And the editor having read your genre a lot and widely is really invaluable to be able to have the vision for how a writer can succeed with difficult plot challenges, true to the genre.
And let me say, I am a freelance editor myself–so I know what it’s like to be on either side of the contract. And STILL, I was amazed how difficult it was to find just the right person for a given need of a manuscript.
I’ve been working on the same novel for many years. The lifespan of my oldest child. (Ugh. Yes, I need to give myself grace–I had three babies and multiple chronic illnesses, all of which took turns making me desist writing for months at a time). During that time I needed editors for different reasons. Somewhere in the middle, I hired a friend who has a Masters in writing because I was so impressed by what she revealed in a friendly edit of a single chapter for me. I KNEW I needed what she had!
And I did learn a lot. But genre got in the way. She admitted she just does not like to read the kind of book I’ m writing. She loves YA fiction and children’s literature primarily; Oprah’s Book club type books with heavy drama are just not her love. I can appreciate that. For me to consider her a friend and supportive, she doesn’t have to love the kind of book I write. But I found it really did matter for my book. As a very straight-forward editor, she told me 5 places where she’d have put the book down and discontinued reading it–except she’d agree to read a certain number of pages for me, for pay. She did not like a certain character or the heaviness of one story line. Our relationship on this project was always finite–and that turned out to be fitting. She could not have been the best to help me finish the book with a story line she did not enjoy. My book is literary fiction, with a dark vein in one story line, and it’s not for everyone.
My second editor, I met a conference years before. One thing I loved about her was that her first step was to talk to me about genre–pin down what it was. (Wow–is that ever the right move for an editor–I’d just learned how important this is!) I ended that conversation with my heart singing that I’d found the perfect editor for what I needed!
Her recommendations also hinged a lot on genre. What I heard from her what was not new: that I could take my book into the realm of a thriller. Yes, I see that. I could shift focus and play up an element and make a psychological thriller. It’s all there in one story line. But that’s not my book. It has that element–but that’s not my whole story.
The second editor moved forward knowing I was firmly entrenched in the literary fiction genre. Now, to be clear, I’d hired her for a very specific task. I’d spent years writing a book that had bloomed beyond its borders. At one point, I had over 250,000 words for a market that caps a book at 100,000 words for new writers. Yes, I hired an editor expressly to recommend/show me how to get the word count down. I asked this editor to help me shorten my 150,000 word novel by one third.
After reading, she came back with a recommendation. It was a good one. Perhaps the easiest/least time-consuming way possible. It was doable. It could leave me with a good story.
But it would not have been my story. Not the one I wanted to tell. Not the big idea that had spurred me on to write it in the first place.
My story, titled Still House at this moment, is a family saga of two generations–one story in the 1970s intertwining with a story in the 2000s. This editor suggested getting rid of the earlier generation’s contribution to the story. True, that would have solved the word count issues entirely. It could work. And make a good story.
But my story was not about one generation PLUS the other generation. It wasn’t that the editor was suggesting I cut my book in half. Really, it was asking me to cut it by 2/3s, plot-wise and meaning-wise. You know how sometimes 1 + 1 is not just 2? (Not mathematically speaking!) The whole is sometimes more than the sum of its parts. My story was about the interaction and interplay between the two stories–one that created its own over-arching story that can only be told by seeing through both the two story lines of the two time-periods.
Amicably, I broke with that editor in mid-project. What she could do to reach my goal of 100,000 words or less was not the final product I wanted. With equanimity , I don’t see this as wrong or that she was a poor editor. To the contrary. I think it’s simply a reflection of one way to achieve the word count goal and the way she knew best.
However, I was convinced that there had to be a way to tell my very large story with fewer words. I was just exhausted from tying to figure it out on my own all these years. I’d done multiple edits myself and cut 30,000 words one time, 40,000 words another, etc. But I was at my wit’s end.
by KMSphotos via flckr
What I was attempting to do–dual timelines–has been done many times before in literary fiction of multiple generations. Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitte and Sweet. Tracy Chevalier’s Virgin Blue. (I could go on.) These works did it in different ways, but they all did it.
I began to wonder if I’d had an editor who read these books as much as I would have an easier way of seeing the vision for it. If an editor who read literary fiction would find it easier to solve my problems than one who didn’t.
I sought out a highly recommended editor whom I had years ago decided I couldn’t afford. She had done the editing (including cutting a substantial amount of words) for a friend.
But my budget was tight. I couldn’t afford having her actually DO the edit in the text. I could afford only asking her to read and tell me HOW she would solve my problems, and then I’d do the work to the text myself.
The recommendation that came back was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted a list of paragraphs, scenes, chapters I could cut that the editor ascertained would not damage my plot. Her recommendation was to cut my book in half at the mid-point. She thought the second half could stand alone as its own story.
I noticed some huge problems with that–so much from the first half did need to be explained. I also had a huge structural element going on in the first half, setting up a mystery that throws the plot in motion. If I cut out the entire skeleton of the book, as well as the setting-up of the mystery, my story would collapse.There was no such thing as simply deleting the first half of the book; taking that off meant needing to create a new structure and figuring out a new way to set up the mystery in a different timeline.
In the end, I told the editor that I was not on-board with plan A, and did she see another way? While waiting for her assessment, I went to the bookstore myself, got another copy of a multigenerational story I loved, and studied. Analyzed its structure. Checked how long it stuck with one story-line before switching to the other. Looked through the engrossing story to its bones.
I was convinced that this type of plot and structure worked and was what my book needed, even if no one else said so.
The editor’s final advice was: If I wanted to keep my big story, I would have to be brutal in cutting a lot of words, scene by scene, chapter by chapter.
I already knew that. The advice sounded like my initial complaint when I was trying to hire an editor to do just that.
And such was where I found myself after 3 editors: with a book a third longer than it was allowed to be to get past gatekeepers and the knowledge that I STILL, after paying $$$ to multiple editors, had to do the work myself that I felt too close to do myself. And without the time to do it. (Who has time for that? I homeschool my kids and tutor! I had a toddler as well!)
Combing through my 150,000 word manuscript to edit words and phrases here and there to cut my word count was monumental and beyond my doing. But suddenly, doing that kind of comb-editing seemed much more doable than figuring out a whole new timeline and structure! I felt like it was suggested that I cut the most successful parts of my novel that beta readers loved in order to see if I still could salvage a story.
In the end, I spent the better part of a year doing at least three more, complete, cover -to-cover revisions of my book, shedding thousands and thousands of words each time. Each time amazed I could find more. Each time sure I had done all I could. A few months later, I started over, again amazed I could find stuff to edit out, ways to pare down my story and still keep its bones.
Panful. Exhilarating. Torturous. Empowering.
Today I have my novel not quite at 100,0000. But I’m below the maximum outer-limit of 109,000. And I got here, in the end, by doing it myself. I spent years trying to find just the right editor who could see my story more clearly than I, who could identify solutions I couldn’t, who could save me time.
I found editors really good at what they do. I learned extremely valuable things from each. But I still never found an editor who had my vision and could help me arrive at it. It’s not a fault. It’s just true.
(But for my last edit, proofreading, I’m going back to one of them because I know she knows her stuff!)
So maybe I learned two things from hiring 3 editors: 1) Genre matters and 2) Sometimes you just have to do it yourself anyway.
“What you are doing is going to be difficult. But you’ve gotta figure it out.” That is the advice I was given 5 yeas ago by a best-selling novelist at a conference who ran a 3-day intensive for a handful of novelists in the thick of it. She had read a few of my chapters and my story’s summary. While other experts kept repeating that I should simplify, cut POV characters, story lines or the entire concept of a dual timeline, she said, no, none of that would do. I just had to do the hard work to figure out how to tell something that complex.
Five years later, I guess she was right.
Well, my manuscript is off for its last edit–the proofread. That’s more straightforward. (Thank goodness!)
by Dave Morrison Photography, via flckr
Any writers out there have any tips for finding editors or take-aways from their experiences?